When I was a boy growing up in China in the years after the Second World War, I knew a young Chinese man who had fought as a partisan against the Japanese occupying forces in Hong Kong. Not surprisingly, he was vehemently anti–Japanese. Furthermore, he was utterly convinced that the Japanese army had been personally led by Emperor Hirohito, who, he claimed, had specifically ordered the infamous Rape of Nanking. I admired this young man – he was one of my childhood heroes – and I still do, but history lessons at school later told me, with equal conviction, that Hirohito had been a pacifist pawn, manipulated by right–wing and militarist factions in pre–war Japan. However, it now seems that my friend’s hunch was right and my history teacher’s spectacularly wrong.
What has brought about this considerable reassessment of imperial culpability is an astonishing piece of scholarship by Herbert P Bix, an American academic living in Japan, where he teaches at Tokyo’s Hitotsubashi University. He has painstakingly examined the vast documentary archives that have gradually become available since the death of